Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Energy Bus -- Reflection #2

As I read chapter 10 in The Energy Bus by Jon Gordon, I kind of thought to myself, "Been there, done that." Chapter 10 is titled "Focus" and features the rule, "Desire, Vision, and Focus Move Your Bus in the Right Direction." I consider myself living proof of how true this is.

In 2015, I considered myself a novice runner. I was slow and plodding, but I could run a 5K with little trouble. But I got inspired that year to run a half marathon, the Chicago Half Marathon specifically. So I researched training plans and diets and bothered all the really good runners I know with all sorts of questions about how to train for a half.

But one of the most important strategies I used was visualization. Every single time I went out to run, all I did was picture myself on that half marathon course. I imagined myself on Lake Shore Drive, I pictured all the other runners around me. I imagined coming around the final curve where I had stood before to cheer on my cousins as they ran that race in previous years. I pictured myself crossing the finish line. What did I want to do -- cry? shout? throw my hands in the air? fist pump? So many possibilities for what would happen when I crossed that finish line.

So, I did everything right. I followed my training plan faithfully. I ate the right foods. I wore the right shoes. I fueled properly. I hydrated properly. And I crossed that finish line, But I know that running isn't only physical. There is a huge part of running that is mental, and I properly prepared myself mentally. I am confident that visualization played a huge role in my ability to finish the Chicago Half Marathon.

And it is a key strategy I employ now as I prepare to run the Chicago Marathon on October!!!!!!
Crossing the finish line at the Chicago Half Marathon.

Wearing my hard-earned hardware!

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Energy Bus -- Reflection #1

Our superintendent gave us all a little homework for the summer -- he asked us all to read The Energy Bus by Jon Gordon. I just started it today, and I am already having a-ha moments. I'm the kind of person who likes to process things by writing about them, so I've been inspired to share some of my thoughts here as I read the book. I'm sure that some people will say this is all one big suck up to my boss, and to them I say, fine, feel that way if you want. But people who know me know that I look for reasons to write, so here I am, expressing myself the way I enjoy it best.

I didn't even get past the foreword written by Ken Blanchard before I got smacked with a truth. Written in the foreword is this: "Every morning you have a choice. Are you going to be a positive thinker or a negative thinker? Positive thinking will energize you." Now, I'm going to get a bit personal here, so I apologize for that upfront, and I hope it doesn't upset anyone who might happen to read it (spoiler: it has a happy ending).

I learned this statement to be quite true, and I learned it the hard way. In 2001, my mom and dad split up after more than 30 years of marriage. It knocked me for an absolute loop. That summer, I made a conscious decision to be angry with and actively hate my father, since he was the one who initiated the breakup. And I also allowed myself to feel the same anger and hatred toward my dad's girlfriend as well. At first, I felt really strong and powerful, spewing all the venom and vitriol I could about them. I had some pretty powerful emotions to let out, and I felt energized by releasing them.

The I woke up one day and realized how exhausted I was -- mentally, emotionally, and physically. I realized that it was a direct result of all the hatred I had been actively harboring. It was hard to get up every day and decide to hate my dad. It made me feel lousy. And as I sat there, thinking about how miserable I felt, I realized I was making other people miserable, too. Nobody enjoyed being around me -- not my husband, not my daughter, not my friends. That active hostility permeated outside the bounds of who is was meant for and poisoned every relationship I had. So that morning, as consciously as I had decided to hate my father, I decided NOT to hate him anymore. The situation with him was beyond my control, so I decided to let go of the hostility. I purposely decided to do and say things that showed my father I loved him. I wanted to have a relationship with him. I wanted my daughter to grow up loving her grandfather, not being poisoned by my awful attitude. I wanted to accept the new woman in his life; if she was important to my dad then she was important to me, too.

And by making that conscious decision to stop being negative and instead be positive, everything around me changed. I felt better, I looked better, my relationships improved. It has been 16 years since that summer, and I get along well with my dad and his girlfriend who is now his wife. I remember that summer of 2001 -- it was filled with angst, turmoil, and darkness. But somehow, someway, I found my way past all that. Positive thinking really is energizing. It is powerful. It is life altering. And it doesn't just happen. It has to be a choice, a decision you make. It has to be done deliberately.

I jumped on the energy bus when I made the decision -- and I didn't even know it!

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Why I Teach: Teaching in the Balance #FBCALbook

The following post was written to be shared with the "Fueled by Coffee and Love" book project. Learn more about this project and maybe submit your own story!

Recently, the high school I graduated from held a career day. They asked alumni of the school to come speak to students about their chosen careers. I briefly considered applying to share with students my experience as a teacher and how I found this career, but I doubted anyone would be very happy to hear what I had to say.

For as long as I can remember, I always wanted to be a teacher. Even as a little girl, I always wanted to play school with my brother and my friends. A woman who was a family friend was a principal and she would often bring me copies of sample workbooks and textbooks or extra copies of worksheets from her school and I would be giddy with excitement at these gifts. Interestingly enough, I also knew very early on that I wanted to be an English teacher. Science and history were interesting, math was a challenge, but reading, writing, and even grammar were so much fun for me! I was an avid book reader and creative writer from the time I could read and write. And if I’m being honest, there’s something fascinating to me about grammar and the way our language works. I get enjoyment from creating clarity of ideas from the way words are arranged on a page. So, English language arts teacher was my chosen career path from the very start.

Obviously, language arts class was always my favorite class in school. I was the dork who read every single book and story assigned to me and loved talking about them with people. I was the nerd who loved writing essays and research papers. I was the girl who wrote scores of poems -- most of them lousy, mushy love poems -- as an emotional outlet. I was the person who took meaningful moments in my life and tried to preserve them by writing them as scenes from a story. I was the one who heard a song with exceptional lyrics and thought, “How I wish I had written that song!” or, “I wonder what the backstory is for this song?” I would then proceed to develop a story for the meaning of the song if I couldn’t find one through research!

I’m the same way today as an adult. I love reading and discussing books. I love reading and analyzing poetry. I still become mesmerized by beautiful song lyrics. I love doing my own creative writing. I love doing research projects. And I love doing all these things with students as well as teachers, friends, and family. My love of the language, especially in written form, is just part of my fabric. But it took just one single teacher to almost rid me of that fiber.

She was one of my high school English teachers. Mrs. Jackson (not her real name) taught American literature. Since literature classes were always my favorite, I looked forward to this class very much. But it didn’t take long to discover that Mrs. Jackson didn’t appreciate literature the same way I did.

I can remember three very distinct experiences with her that could have broken me but instead increased my resolve. The first incident came during a class discussion of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story “Young Goodman Brown.” Mrs. Jackson was discussing symbolic elements in the story. She talked about the character of Faith and the pink ribbons she wore in her hair. Faith’s pink ribbons are traditionally seen as a symbol of her purity or innocence. I raised my hand and asked, “Is it possible that maybe Faith isn’t as pure and innocent as she seems? Her ribbons are pink, but isn’t white the traditional color of purity? Maybe Hawthorne was trying to show us that Faith isn’t as completely pure as we think she is. That’s why he had her wear pink ribbons instead of white.”

Mrs. Jackson’s response was swift and stinging. “Absolutely not!” she told me. She then went on a rant that sounded something like this: “Her name is Faith. The ribbons are pink, which is a color we associate with innocent little girls. For years and years, experts have explained how her ribbons represent her purity, but you come along as a teenager and think you know this story better than the experts? You don’t know anything. I know this story. I’m the teacher. I’m the expert. You need to understand this the way I teach it to you.”

Teenager though I was, I can remember thinking, “I don’t think that is the way a teacher should tell a student she’s wrong. I just had an idea. I just asked a question.” It was shocking and a little upsetting, but not demoralizing. Because I was a teenager and prone to being obnoxious, instead of being beaten down by Mrs. Jackson, I preferred to be a pebble in her shoe. I spent that year continuing to ask questions about literature -- sometimes legitimate, sometimes absurd -- just to irritate her.

The “Young Goodman Brown” incident quietly rallied my classmates around me. This was evident in the second distinct incident I remember. It was near the end of the school year, and being the grammar geek that I was, I had finished all the exercises in our grammar workbooks already. Mrs. Jackson had given us a few pages to complete in class. As my classmates worked, I made a little show out of closing my workbook and pulling out a novel to read. Mrs. Jackson glared at me from her podium for ten minutes. When it was time to go over the answers in class, she immediately called on me to read the answers, which I did -- and all correctly, I might add! When I finished, my classmates looked at Mrs. Jackson, who was clearly flabbergasted at not having caught me being lazy or defiant, and they broke out in spontaneous cheers. When they were finally quiet, Mrs. Jackson looked at me and said, “You’re not as smart as you think you are, Renee.”

The final incident came at the end of the school year when it was time to register for next year’s classes. Mrs. Jackson refused to recommend me for honors level English, despite having a high B average in her honors level English class and all the honors level English classes previous. She met with my parents and me and told us directly, “Renee doesn’t have what it takes to be an honors student.” That was the only rationale she offered. And just as an FYI -- my parents fought her recommendation and had me placed in honors English the next year, where I maintained a high B average.

When people ask me why I became a teacher, I tell them I was inspired by Mrs. Jackson. Often, people are taken aback by this. Mrs. Jackson was not a very good teacher -- it is easy to see this from the three anecdotes I just shared. How could she possibly be inspirational?

I always imagined that teachers are in a balance: good teachers on one side of the scale, bad ones on the other side. As long as Mrs. Jackson was teaching, then that scale would always be tipped slightly in favor of the bad teachers. I became completely resolved to even out the balance by being a good teacher.

I vowed to myself never to tell a student he or she is wrong, stupid, or silly for having an idea or asking a question. I vowed to myself never to make a student feel any of those things, either, so I would have to be thoughtful in my language and interactions. I vowed to myself never to play “gotcha” with a student or make a deliberate attempt to humiliate him or her. I vowed to look for reasons to help students achieve their goals rather than find reasons to squash them. I vowed never to let students know who I liked and who I didn’t like (because I am only human, after all -- there have been some students I didn’t like). I vowed to myself to be the things Mrs. Jackson was not -- open-minded, friendly, helpful, and most of all, kind.

Why do I teach? I teach to keep the scale balanced, and maybe even tipped in favor of the good guys!

Sunday, September 18, 2016

What is the Purpose of Education? #IMMOOC

If I had been asked the question, "What is the purpose of education?" a decade ago, I'm sure my answer would have focused on things like learning material, understanding the mechanics of writing, and other curriculum-based skills. In answering this question today, I still see an absolute need for kids to learn some core skills -- reading, writing, 'rithmetic -- I think the purpose of education has finally gone beyond learning those skills.

In his book The Innovator's Mindset, George Couros says on pg. 3  in the introduction, "Consider this: students have access to better resources online than what teachers could possibly offer." Facing this fact can be a real ego blow for some teachers who fancy themselves "experts". I certainly don't discount the knowledge that teachers have about their areas of expertise; teachers definitely have important information that is worth sharing with students! But teachers are no longer the main conduit for getting that information to students. Teachers need to embrace the myriad of excellent resources available to help them educate their students; other people have done all sorts of legwork for us -- we teachers would be silly not to use what's out there!

So to me, the purpose of education now is to make sure students learn the important information in all sorts of subject areas, but then they also must find ways to put what they learn to use. They also need to learn all sorts of other skills that we used to consider part of the "hidden curriculum" -- things like cooperation, communication, organization, collaboration, research, speaking, presenting, analyzing, evaluation, application. Without opportunities to put these skills into practice, all the content learned will be useless, just sitting there in their minds (if we're lucky, it stays in there -- it's more likely it just fades away).

Innovation plays a critical role in education today because the nature of information is constantly changing. There is always new information -- both factual and false information -- and new ways that information is shared and accessed. In order for education to remain relevant for students, schools need to constantly reassess how their students are learning and change with the times. Without innovation, schools just update themselves but then become stagnant -- and we end up back in the situation so many schools are in now: facing the need for change but fighting the system to make it happen.

Monday, August 29, 2016

It's Not The Device, It's You

News flash: I don't think technology is the be-all and end-all of education. I'm sure this makes some people raise their eyebrows. I am the Instructional Technology Resource Teacher, after all. Without technology, wouldn't my job be moot?

Just because I am an advocate of using technology in the classroom doesn't immediately mean that I think all technology use is good. I don't think books and teachers should be replaced by computers and online schools.

Good education is about meeting students where they're at. To do that effectively, we need to make sure that we are using the wide variety of tools available in our toolbox. Sometimes kids need a book. Sometimes they need to write something down on paper. Sometimes they need to play a game. Sometimes they need to see a video. And sometimes they need to use a computer or the internet.

When people complain about kids being addicted to technology, it is so quick and easy to blame the technology itself. Common complaints blamed on technology:

  • Kids spend too much time on their phones/iPads/game systems/computers that they don't know how to interact socially with other people.
  • Kids don't get enough sleep because they're on their devices all night long.
  • Kids don't do as well in school because they pay more attention to their device than their homework.
  • Kids have short attention spans and need to be entertained because of everything they do online.
  • Kids can't spell or write coherently because they always use "text speak".
  • Kids suffer health issues from so much time spent staring at illuminated screens.
These are a mere sampling of complaints. But when it gets right down to it, here's the ugly truth: if theses things are happening, it is not the fault of the device; it's the fault of the parent or the adult who should be paying attention to the way the technology is being used by the child. If a child is up until 3:00 in the morning playing video games, it's not Nintendo's fault. The parents should take steps to make sure the child is in bed. If a student turns in a report littered with IMHO's and FWIW's and spellings like "wut" and "b4", that's not the phone's fault; it's the teacher's fault for not taking the time to help the child write correctly for his or her audience.

And while I'm sharing unpopular ideas, adults who can't put their phones down during dinner or act like internet trolls or compulsively post selfie after selfie -- the technology isn't at fault there, either. As adults, we are all responsible for our own behavior. It's a cop out to say, "I'm addicted to my phone."

Placing blanket blame on the technology and then deciding that the way to fix the ills that exist as a result of the abuse of the device is to simply ban the technology is utterly laughable. The technology is here to stay -- the internet isn't a fad. It is woven into the fabric of our lives and our kids' lives. The best way to make sure all that technology gets used appropriately is to model proper usage ourselves and guide our kids through using it safely, meaningfully, and effectively.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016


Here's a news flash: teachers are people. For some people, this is hard to believe. Teachers are mere humans like the rest of the people in this world, but they are sometimes expected to act in super-human ways. And in my opinion, sometimes that is exactly what teachers need to do -- set aside their humanity; otherwise, teachers might end up behaving unprofessionally. So here comes a rant.

Because I am human, there are times when I show up to work and I am having a really bad day. Maybe I had a fight with my husband or daughter, or maybe I'm facing a family crisis (like last fall when my father nearly lost his life due to a cardiac arrest or last winter when I had to deal with my grandfather's suicide), or maybe I dropped the gallon of milk minutes before I left the house and had to clean it up. But in the name of professionalism, I push all that humanity aside and do my job. This doesn't mean I can't tell my students or coworkers that I'm having a bad day or that I'm dealing with some really tough things in my life at home. What it means is that I don't get to take out my anger and pain and frustration on my students and coworkers. I don't get to be snippy and crabby with them. I don't get to be rude to them. Instead, I behave professionally and interact with the people at work respectfully and civilly and pleasantly, if I can muster that. Doing otherwise is unprofessional.

Because I am human, I do not like every student in my class equally. Some students I like more than others; some I actually don't like at all. But the funny thing is that they don't know that. My students don't necessarily know who I really like, and they sure don't know which ones I don't like. Showing favoritism or partiality or dislike or hostility would be unprofessional. And this can be hard because kids are perceptive little creatures. They can sniff out fake people really quickly. As a teacher, I have to set aside my humanity and behave in a super-human way in order to be professional.

Because I am human, I do not like every person I work with. Some people I consider to be really good friends; some are work acquaintances; and some are people I am stuck working with despite the fact that I don't like them or trust them or even respect them. But just like my students, those people don't know who they are. The people I have issues with are still treated with kindness and friendliness and respect. I don't get to ignore them or be short with them or blow off their email messages when they ask me for help because doing all those things would be unprofessional.

Because I work with humans, I have to deal with people who have bad days and people who don't like me. They are short with me, ignore my emails, and behave in an unprofessional way. But I don't get to respond in kind. Instead, I behave professionally and meet rudeness with kindness.

Really, being a professional requires remembering one simple thing: treat other people the way you would want to be treated. 

Monday, August 8, 2016


A couple of weeks ago I attended an incredibly motivational conference on innovative teaching and educational technology (Leyden Innovative Teaching and Learning Symposium). Not only were there high quality keynote speakers and presenters (such as Josh Stumpenhorst and Jaime Casap), but it was also limited to a maximum of 425 participants, so none of the breakout sessions was ever overcrowded. I highly recommend this conference -- it is well worth three days out of your summer vacation!

But one thing happened there that for some reason has stuck with me -- and kind of left me scratching my head. On the last day of the symposium, the keynote speaker did one of those quick little audience surveys to find out how long people had been teaching. She started out asking for first year teachers to raise their hands. If I remember correctly, there was no one who raised their hand. Then she asked for anyone who had been teaching 1 - 5 years, and there were a few hands. Then she asked for 5 - 10 years; there were a few more hands. Then 10 - 20 years, a nice number of people raised their hands. The she asked for 20 - 30 years; there were lots of hands for that group, including mine. And then something really weird happened. The people in the auditorium broke into spontaneous applause. When the speaker then asked for people who had been teaching for more than 30 years to raise their hands (and there were a few), there was more applause. Being part of a group of the receiving end of spontaneous applause like that was humbling but weird. Every day, I go to work and do my job -- and I'm not denying that it can be hard, arduous, draining work -- but I get to work with great teachers and fun students, so my time at work really is enjoyable. Having fun seems unworthy of applause. But then when I started to think of what it takes to be a teacher for more than a quarter century, I guess I can see why people would celebrate that. There is a constant state of flux in education, and to be quite honest, being a teacher doesn't always generate a whole lot of respect and admiration. So I guess I'll just be humbled and grateful that someone out there actually thinks that what I do and have done for so many years deserves a moment of applause.

But after the applause was all done and the speaker got back to her presentation, I had a thought that baffled me a bit. I realized that here, at this three day conference on innovating education, learning how to change up the way teaching and learning happens in the classroom, there were many more of the "older" teachers than the "younger" teachers. And I wondered why that was. After all, it is so often the "older" teachers who get the bad rap -- they're the ones who are stuck in their old ways of doing things; they're the ones who don't want to change. At least that's what the prevailing attitude seems to be so often. The veteran teachers are stuck in the past, the jaded ones. The fresh-faced college kids are the eager ones, the innovative ones, the hope for the future. Yet at a conference devoted fully to significantly changing the way education looks, there sure weren't very many of those fresh-faced innovators.

Don't get me wrong -- I'm not naive. I know that there are PLENTY of veteran teachers who are sitting around on their tenured butts whining about "kids these days" and still using the same tests they were using 5 or 10 years ago. I also know that there are plenty of teachers out there who are new to the job and eager to change the world. But this conference isn't the first time I've run into this. A few years ago, I attended a two day workshop on grading practices presented by Rick Wormeli. My colleague and I were seated at a table with another 5 or 6 teachers from a different district. They all looked pretty young -- barely pushing 30 -- so I'm guessing they hadn't been teaching more than 5 - 7 years max. And THEY were the ones bucking everything Rick Wormeli said. THEY were the ones complaining that this was stupid and there was no need to change anything. But there sat my colleague and I -- with our years in the classroom being more than double of those young teachers -- and we were digging what Wormeli was saying.

I don't know why there is this weird divide, or if it really exists. But it sure feels like it.